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Communication lessons from the Joplin Missouri Tornado Crisis

Posted on 19th March, by Tom Williams in Conferences. 4 Comments

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Innogage was a sponsor at the OHSPRA conference last week. While I was there, I had the privilege of sitting in on the keynote presentation of Kim Vann, Community Development Coordinator for Joplin Schools.

Joplin Missouri Torando damageIn 2011, incredibly destructive EF5 Multi-vortex tornado that ripped through Joplin Missouri, destroying much of the city and obliterating most of the schools. It left 160 people dead in its wake including 16 students from the Joplin schools.

Although Joplin is no stranger to tornadoes, no one was ready for something of this magnitude.  Here are a few lessons learned that Kim shared with the group.

1. Do not get immune to the sound of the tornado sirens. If you live in a Midwest town (such as I do), you hear the tornado sirens go off on a regular basis. In fact, I was in my basement just last night with my family as a severe storm moved across Columbus. Tornado sirens blew on 5 separate occasions. When you hear the sirens, take them seriously.

2.Be ready for donations.  If you are a school system or a hospital or non-profit, have a bank account already set up to receive donations. Most banks or credit unions will let you hold an account open with a minimal deposit such as $10. Shortly after the devastating tornado, requests to donate began coming in but there was no financial vehicle set up to receive and process them quickly. Joplin actually created an entire website dedicated to the rebuilding effort.

3. Don’t block social media. With servers and telephone lines down, the best and fastest way for Joplin to communicate with parents and students was via Facebook. They used this social media channel to verify the safety of students by having them check in via comments. Interestingly, there was pending legislation which would have made it illegal for the staff to communicate with students via Facebook. Legislators… be careful when you craft your laws!!

4. Be grateful that people want to help. The single largest donation to the school was a $1,000,000 donation to replace computers for the students. It did not come from the Gates Foundation or any other US foundation. It did not come from a Church group. It came in from the United Arab Emirates, or UAE. What was interesting (and appalling in my opinion) was that some of the community members were actually angry that the UAE had given money to help the students. They shouted bigoted slurs such as “Jihadi Administrators” at the school staff for accepting the gift. I’m happy to say that the Joplin schools did not let the voices of a few domestic extremists stop them from doing the right thing and accepting the financial aid to help the students.

5. Set clear goals and rally together to achieve. Shortly after the tornado destroyed 25% of the city, the Superintendent announced to the staff that the Joplin city schools would open on time and on schedule… which was less than 90 days from the disaster. At first everyone thought it was impossible but they had a clear goal and a date and they pulled together as a team to make it happen. The Joplin schools did open on time on the first day of school.

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4 Responses to “Communication lessons from the Joplin Missouri Tornado Crisis”

  1. Tom, that’s interesting, thanks for posting.

    “Interestingly, there was pending legislation which would have made it illegal for the staff to communicate with students via Facebook. Legislators… be careful when you craft your laws!!”

    That’s an eye-opener.

  2. So glad you passed this info along! Very interesting! Researching social media and its role as a reliable (or unreliable, depending who you ask) source of communication and stumbled onto this. Interesting to see a solid defense for social media’s onslaught of information. Thank you!


  3. This article was great reminder to be prepared. Living in the Midwest, this definitely hit home that we can’t be complacent when it comes to being prepared in life or business. The idea of “becoming sensitized to the sirens” is such an effective message to keep at the front of your mind in whatever it is you are doing. I know in the event of a tornado, my household grabs their shoes and coats, and I grab my wallet so we have them if we need them in the face of disaster. Businesses definitely need be sure to have a contingency plan for times of disaster. Also love how much you stress that a line of communication needs to stay open in order to facilitate effective disaster management. Great stuff!

  4. Tom Williams says:

    Thanks for your comments Dave. When we head for our basement during Tornado scares we grab flashlights and a can opener. Our storage room in the basement doubles as a large pantry for our canned goods so should we ever get trapped (heaven forbid) we will have days worth of food. By the way, I see you work for CPM. Great law firm! I hired your legal counsel for a prior company I worked with a few years back.

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